Almost every day for the last three weeks, a sleepy part of West Sussex has hit the national headlines. The village of Balcombe, notable for having a tea room so popular that they take reservations, is at the epicentre of a mighty struggle over how we obtain our energy. On one side are the massed ranks of many police forces and on the other, an overwhelming majority of the local villagers and an impromptu coalition of everyone who cares enough about our environment to make themselves count on the ground. On the ground and in front of a gate.
Behind the gate are a few dozen employees of a mining company, some of which work directly in the drilling operation and some of which guard the site. Some of those guarding the site are believed to be ex-soldiers with the British Army. Not just any soldiers though, the most feared soldiers in the world, the Ghurkas. Quite what purpose they are intended to serve now is unclear. Whatever it is, they evidently need protection from the congregation of peaceniks outside the gate. Who better to protect the most fearsome soldiers than a solid line of spooning police officers?
The established media has made much of the fact that protesters constantly arriving in Balcombe come from all over the country. That’s certainly true, the people outside the gate who have established the Balcombe Protection Camp do come from all sorts of places, including Balcombe itself. None of the workers inside the gate come from Balcombe. The established media doesn’t like to mention that. The argument made against the protest goes along the lines of ‘these are just people jumping on a bandwagon’. On Monday 19th August, the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas, travelled to Balcombe, as she has done on many occasions already. But on Monday she left the area in a police van, under arrest for refusing to leave the area immediately in front of the gate, where she and many others were attempting to block access through the gate, by engaging in peaceful civil disobedience. Rather than jump on any old bandwagon passing by, her intervention simply represented a step-change in her long-standing commitment to the campaign to save the planet from capitalism.
Legally, there can be no objection to people travelling to a protest. Otherwise, Sussex Police couldn’t get away with giving coaches to fascists wanting to travel into the city centre in Brighton to complain about the Green voters there. The policing operation at Balcombe has now cost £2,300,000. Compare and contrast that with what it cost the police to facilitate the so-called ‘March for England‘ in Brighton on 21st April 2013. Don’t worry, I’ve done the maths for you! The Balcombe protest costs £100,000 a day to police, whereas the fascist demonstration cost £500,000 for a single day’s policing.
Morally, there can be no objection to people travelling to a protest. Coming together with other people to freely express an opinion has long been recognised as a fundamental human right. The idea that you can only demonstrate your opinion outside your own house is risible. Clearly, you are going to have to travel somewhere in order to join others and make yourself count.
Practically, one of the key ideas behind protesting is to show strength of numbers. We know that the local village is overwhelmingly opposed to fracking because their Parish Council surveyed them. However, that didn’t make any impact on the licensing arrangements for the drilling site. We knew also that people around the country were concerned about the impending chaos which will be caused by runaway climate change, but that wasn’t taken into consideration either. Therefore, a much bigger campaign was needed, not just to persuade ‘our’ politicians but also to persuade the shareholders and the money men (they are always men) that this is not a good investment. To run such a campaign, people have to work on it together. Despite all the advantages of the internet, people work best together when they are physically together.
I went to the encampment myself the day before Caroline Lucas got arrested, along with a couple of thousand other campaigners. The reason so many people went there on a Sunday was because we have jobs and chose to spend some of our precious recreational time at the protest. We played music, danced in the road, listened to speeches against fracking and circled the site in the act of solidarity most loved by peaceful campaigners ~ holding hands. Though covering only a sliver of land, the woods to the South of the site are stunningly beautiful. Within a few steps of entering them, you will be captivated by their natural exquisiteness. You will also be committing the act of simple trespass, which is a civil offence against the landowner and not something the police can be properly be concerned about.
Despite civil disputes being outside the job description of the police, they also entered the woods to warn people that they were trespassing. Katy Bourne, the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner, has asked the Home Office for more cash to deal with the demonstrators at Balcombe. Although the fascist demonstration cost a fortune for a single day, she didn’t ask for more cash to police that. Her political party (the thieving Tory bastards) has been silent on the political aims of the now annual demonstration of fascists in Brighton, despite repeated calls for them to distance themselves from the racists. They certainly haven’t been silent on the issue of fracking, which they heartily support. There is an increasing concern that Sussex Police are being led according to Conservative Party policy. Katy Bourne needs to explain why our taxes are being spent on police officers wading into woodland, to act on behalf of private landowners, without evidence of any crime being committed.
A distinguishing characteristic of this protest is that, despite the huge international publicity it has attracted for three weeks, the people encamped outside the gate have remained entirely peaceful. Compare and contrast that with the behaviour of the police. They appear to be acting under instructions to turn nasty at any opportunity. The photographs of Caroline Lucas’s 21 year old son being subjected to violence by the police have gone viral. The police closed the road the day I was there, to facilitate that Sunday’s protest march. After the speeches, the road remained blocked by a line of police vans, yet for some reason known only to their commanders, the police decided to attack a samba band and violently push them off the road. I witnessed that myself. Although the band was playing and thus could hardly be expected to hear what was being said to them, the police relied on the power of their own voices rather than the public address system, which they had used earlier in the day. Several friends of mine reported that they had used their sound system to warn the demonstrators away from committing crimes and in so doing, managed to antagonise everyone within earshot, which was everyone. On the day of Caroline Lucas’s arrest, one officer, who was illegally working without his identification numbers, decided to kneel on the head of a man whom they had seized on the ground.
The police know that the best way to get more overtime payments from this protest is to make it turn ugly. The best way to start a fight is to… start it. The original campaigners dedicated themselves to a peaceful struggle at Balcombe. Almost every day has been billed as a family friendly event. Even the name coined for the protest ~ The Great Gas Gala ~ is indicative of their intentions. If the police really wanted to facilitate peaceful protest, they wouldn’t do everything they could to wind people up, they wouldn’t cut the English off from their cup of tea (yes, at one point last Sunday they actually kettled the kettle) and they certainly wouldn’t deliberately risk killing someone directly in front of the media. Let’s be clear about this, there can be no lawful excuse to kneel on the head of a man lying on the ground. Incredibly, the officer concerned has not been suspended.
As the protest enters its fourth week, the challenge now is for Sussex Police to decide whether they will return to their lawful role of keeping the peace or whether they wish to carry on the dirty work of acting as estates managers for landowners and being the tooled up wing of the Conservative Party. The fact is that they do know the law (they get quite a bit of training in it) and they can afford to arrest everyone the slow way, the peaceful way. If that raises the cost of policing this protest, so be it. It is the price of living in a civil society.
The copyright to all the photographs included in this post is owned by Agnieszka Merta, who has very generously given me permission to reproduce them here. Click on the images to enlarge them.